It became clear to me from my early volunteering at Fort McHenry that in order to be successful it was going to have to absorb as much information as possible from my fellow volunteers and staff at the Fort. All the staff that I’ve had the opportunity to work with have a clear passion for history. Some of the rangers who work in Fort McHenry previously were teachers or had studied to be teachers of history. Also many of the volunteers who work at the fort are retirees who have had previous experience teaching, former Rangers, or members of the community who are dedicated to teaching others about the importance of the Fort. My first few days working at the Fort I had the opportunity of observing one of the volunteer staffers by the name of Will. Several of the first programs I observed at the Fort were taught by Will. In my college time my primary focus was to be a secondary history teacher therefore I did not have much experience working with younger groups. By observing Will I learned I was going to have to be able to connect with students of all ages and the general public. Watching Will showed me that the same program such as a flag talk may be taught totally different to a group of third-graders compared to how you would do it with a group of visiting military officers. Being a firefighter in the city definitely helped me be able to have the confidence to talk with individuals I’d never met before. I was learning that I would need to take the program being offered at the fort and to adapt it in a moments notice based on the audience. The program known as a “flag talk” is centered around holding an American flag, the fort has several various sizes of the Star-Spangled Banner, which is the second version of the American flag. What makes the Star-Spangled Banner so unique from other variations of the American flag is that it actually has 15 stripes. It is the only American flag that has more than 13. The flag talk also discusses how after the bombardment, and the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner the flag finally became a symbol of American identity. It’s often hard for anyone in my generation to look at the American flag as anything other than a symbol of our country especially after the events of 9/11. The image of the three firefighters raising that small 3 x 5 flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center was a picture that united our country after the events of 2001. But without the Star-Spangled Banner and the bombardment of Baltimore the American flag may not have had the uniting effect it did in that moment. This is one of the ideas we tried to convey to visitors at the fort, that prior to the war of 1812 most people living in the United States identified themselves by where they were from. Example would be someone living in Cortland would consider themselves a New Yorker before being an American. Likewise someone being from Baltimore would describe himself as a Marylander. While this self identity would be something that would persist through the Civil War the idea of national identity began changing with the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner. By the end of my third full day working at the Fort Will made me do my first solo flag talk. While I was nervous, I had done the reading required by the Fort and knew enough other content that I would be able to make it interesting, I hoped. It went better than I had expected. The program lasting about 15 minutes consisted of a group of around 20 people holding a 10 x 14 Star-Spangled Banner flag as we went over the design and construction. We talked about who made the two flags that were kept at the Fort, the shapes of the stars, the material used and how to properly handle a flag. Flag talks are the shortest of the programs offered by the Park Service at Fort McHenry but are often attended by the largest groups. When there are enough people, we will take out a large 30 x 42′ replica of the Garrison flag giving the visitors a visual aid to how large the flag Francis Scott Key saw the morning after the bombardment. Two of the most special groups I had the opportunity of doing a flag talk with included a group of Kansas veterans from World War II, Korean, and Vietnam war traveling to Washington on a Honor Flight to visit their respective war memorials and a group of international Sgt. Majors who were in the Washington area as part of their graduation from the year-long Academy at Fort Bliss Texas. As a group we either fold the flag or roll up the larger ones as they would’ve been in 1814. We make the point that the most important thing about the American flag is how it brings us all together. You cannot fold a flag alone it takes a group, the flag is something that unites us no matter where we come from in life. The flag may instill different emotions in different people, but we can all agree that it is a greatest symbol of America.
By: Chris Gilfillan, spring 2019